We have established reference ranges for three microvillar intestinal enzymes--alkaline phosphatase (EC 220.127.116.11), gamma-glutamyltransferase (EC 18.104.22.168), and leucine aminopeptidase (EC 22.214.171.124)--measured in amniotic fluid in a reference population of 1875 women presenting for routine amniocentesis. These data were derived for use in prenatal diagnostic studies in a population at risk (1:4) for cystic fibrosis. False-positive or indeterminate results were noted for fewer than 3.5% of all low-risk cases for each enzyme evaluated. Total alkaline phosphatase and its isoenzymes and leucine amino-peptidase and gamma-glutamyltransferase were measured in amniotic fluid sampled between the 15th and 19th weeks of gestation. Restriction fragment length polymorphism analysis of DNA was also performed when possible. In 52 cases examined for cystic fibrosis thus far, 46 were diagnosed on the basis of DNA analysis and (or) by sweat testing; for the other six cases, only abnormal enzyme results were obtained before termination of pregnancy. Predictions based on microvillar enzyme results were falsely negative in three cases. In only one case was there a discrepancy between enzyme results and DNA analysis. Diagnostic accuracy was highest during the 17th and 18th week of gestation. Preliminary results suggest the false-negative rate of this diagnostic strategy may be greater than or equal to 10%.